Somehow I had become convinced that I’d read lots of books by Ursula Le Guin, and only had to catch up on a few of them, like the young adult Earthsea trilogy. It looks, however, like I’ve read barely any of them: a lot of essays, a couple of non-SF young-adult novels, The Lathe of Heaven (just a few years ago), and something set in a Central European city that I now can’t find at all . More recently, I read the linked stories in Changing Planes (which I’m happy to see has apparently been moved back to the adult section, if only for the illustrations). I began catching up with The Dispossessed. Instead of writing one big post on The Dispossessed (I may write a big post or two about it later), I think I’ll post short pieces, from time to time, about various things in the novel that I think are interesting.
The novel is about a two-planet system, one of the planets of which has been colonized by anarchists fleeing the other one. The story follows Shevek, a physicist from Anarres, the anarchist planet. He has chosen to be the first one from his home world to visit Urras, their ancestral home. Urras is much like earth, and the nation Shevek ends up visiting is a totalitarian version of a typical capitalist (or late-capitalist) society, much like North America or any country in Europe. There are two interleaved storylines. One begins at the moment Shevek leaves Anarres. The other begins with his childhood and leading up to that moment.
Near the end of the novel, Shevek’s friend Bedap watches him enter a room. Le Guin writes that Bedap “saw him as one occasionally sees a very old friend . . . like many others among the Anarresti, a people selected by a vision of freedom, and adapted to a barren world, a world of distances, silences, desolations.”
This reminded me of Adrienne Rich’s poem, “Face to Face,” which appeared in 1974, the same year that The Dispossessed was published. One stanza of Rich’s poem runs as follows:
How people used to meet!
starved, intense, the old
Christmas gifts saved up till spring,
and the old plain words
This seems a good description of Anarresti culture generally and of Shevek in particular, as do the lines that follow: “with his God-given secret, spelled out through months of snow and silence.” Developing and articulating his brand-new theory, understood as yet by nobody else on Anarres, alone and justified only by his personal understanding of his society’s belief system, is exactly what Shevek does for most of the book. His great dream is to be able to publish his work, and then to be able to live among people who appreciate it, because they do similar work. And the Anarresti are subject to frequent job reassignments, which can be anywhere on the planet, separating even spouses from each other, and parents from their children. The poem could equally well describe their reunions after long sojourns in the wilderness and wearying voyages home.
Anarres, however, is a society very unlike our own, and not necessarily an unambiguous utopia. (In fact, the title has the subheading “an ambiguous utopia”!) For that matter, Rich’s feelings about “the old plain words” and the effort to work out an idea “through months of snow and silence” don’t seem to be unambiguously positive. She begins the poem, “Never to be lonely like that,” and as the poem goes on, it reads like a lament: modernity is a loss, because the way we live now means, unfortunately, never to be lonely like that. But in the end it is a wish: I shall live my life so as never to be lonely like that. The poet associates the will to live that way with patriarchy and narrowness: “one’s will to be law and prophet for all that lawlessness.” And she associates the will to work out such an idea with madness: she compares the mind of the man who works it out—unduly influenced, perhaps, by “the prairie wolves in their lunar hilarity circling one’s little all,” now approaching his neighbors after long absence and preparing to share it with them—to “a loaded gun.”
I don’t think Le Guin would accept this comparison for her protagonist. Shevek, after all, is bound and determined not to allow his discovery to be used for building weapons. But I think she might welcome the suggestion that Anarres, at the stage of development it’s reached at the time The Dispossessed is set, is to be compared with the United States at the time of the settling of the frontier. The novel is by no means a straight allegory, and the laws and customs of Anarres are not those of the United States. But the two societies, real and fictional, are similar enough in some aspects that the one is perhaps a commentary on the other.